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Schools expect state test 'opt-outs' to increase

Third-grade students study time and clocks in a

Third-grade students study time and clocks in a math class at Pasadena Elementary School in Plainview on Tuesday, March 18, 2014. Credit: Barry Sloan

School superintendents across Long Island predict an increase in the number of students refusing to take state tests this spring -- a movement spurred by parents who say their kids are overtested and the exams have little value.

Some administrators agree, even as teachers prepare more than 204,000 children on Long Island in grades three through eight to take the tougher exams aligned with the hotly debated Common Core academic standards. The English Language Arts and math tests will be administered in April and May.

Baldwin, Eastport-South Manor, Massapequa and Plainview-Old Bethpage are among districts where educators expect an increase in "opt outs" based in part on the number of requests from parents. Suffolk's large Middle Country district started getting refusal letters in September and also anticipates a jump.

"The only way to stop that monster is through civil disobedience," said Diane Livingston, a mother of three in the Port Washington school district. "Standardized test prep has hijacked the classroom."

Two of her children, in the fourth and sixth grades, will sit out the exams, she said.

"Children are simply learning to take multiple-choice tests or read short nonfiction and summarize it," she said. "It's torture for them."

School administrators in Nassau and Suffolk counties said they have asked the state Department of Education for guidance on how to handle an increase in refusals but have gotten few answers.

"All students are expected to participate in state assessments as part of the core academic program," department spokesman Jonathan Burman said. It's up to the district to decide how to record those who do not participate, he said.

Students who do not take the exams for any reason are reported to the state as "not tested." Lack of a standardized test score does not affect a student's final course grade in the subject or prevent a student from passing to the next grade, superintendents said.

On test days, there is no uniform response to students' refusals among the Island's 124 school systems.

Some take nonparticipating students to another room during tests. Others ask children to sit quietly without reading material, a practice some parents call "sit-and-stare." Still others ask those refusing to take the tests to stay home.

Responding to a question posed to his office by parents and administrators, Burman said, "Schools do not have any obligation to provide an alternative location or activities for individual students while the tests are being administered."

Proponents say tougher exams make for better-prepared kids who will be more competitive globally. They say that school districts must meet Education Department mandates for testing and student participation requirements, some of which stem from federal law.


In a difficult position

Long Beach superintendent Dave Weiss said schools are in a difficult position, trying to juggle students' rights and state rules.

"I'm not going to violate state regulations and I'm not going to start a war with parents," Weiss said. "It's a hard one."

The English exams will be given April 1-3, and the math tests April 30-May 2. Roughly 1.16 million children were in grades three through eight in New York in the 2012-13 school year.

The "opt out" movement picked up steam last spring on Long Island, in New York City and upstate, growing from parents' frustration with a series of educational reforms, including the Common Core standards and related exams, increased testing and a greater emphasis on test preparation throughout the school year.

Adding to their frustration, parents said, is the state's controversial teacher evaluation system, which links educators' performance to student test scores. Some said this has created a stressful classroom environment.

In addition, plans to collect student information in a huge "cloud"-based system -- a move the state Board of Regents put on hold this month -- has raised questions about student privacy, further eroding parents' trust in the state and federal education policies.

Such worries are echoed throughout the nation. The opt-out movement can be found in Washington, Illinois, Florida and Texas, among other places.

Rosmarie Bovino, superintendent of Island Park schools, said parents are irritated by what she calls a lack of responsiveness among state education officials in addressing their concerns.

Her district's school board recently passed two measures related to the federal- and state-driven reforms. In the first, Island Park withdrew from President Barack Obama's Race to the Top education initiative because of the push for collection of student data.

The second measure called for Congress and the White House to reduce federal testing mandates. Both were sent to the state.

In the meantime, the district will continue to comply with mandates and regulations, Bovino said.

Broadly speaking, she said, students can benefit from the experience of sitting for tests: In later years, they likely will have to take exams as candidates for college admission, civil service jobs and licensing professions.

"If a parent 'opts out' for a child now, at what point does the parent decide it is time to 'opt in?' " she said. "Which child has been advantaged or disadvantaged -- the one with years of testing practice, or the one who is new to it?"


Parents stand firm

Many parents disagree.

Tova Markowitz, with a daughter in fifth grade and a son in eighth grade in the Lynbrook district, said her children will refuse to take upcoming exams.

Markowitz, who has been a public school teacher on Long Island for 21 years, said these tests don't benefit children and instead are used to evaluate educators. She noted that some universities no longer require admissions tests.

"Some colleges are not even looking at SATs," Markowitz said. "They are looking at the child's grades. So no, I don't see the value in it."

Neither does Bill Johnson, superintendent of Rockville Centre schools and a former president of the Nassau County and New York State Council of School Superintendents.

The tests provide "worthless" data, he told a group of parents and educators at a March 10 forum at LIU Post.

The Education Department releases only the final scores -- it doesn't let schools know which questions children answer incorrectly -- so there's no way to know how to improve instruction, he said.

"We tried to interpret it, kid by kid by kid," Johnson said. "It just doesn't match up with what we know about how children are learning and what they know. We had to throw it away."

Half the district's eighth-graders declined the exams last year, and more are predicted to do so this time around, he said.

Johnson hopes the movement prompts the state to change the exams, making them more meaningful. Tests should be far shorter, and more data should be shared with local districts, he said.

Mark Nocero, superintendent of the Eastport-South Manor district, asked if refusing a test has any consequence for children, said, "To be honest, no."

Nocero called it "a stretch" to say the exams would help student performance on college admissions tests years later.

Other Long Island educators had different views.

It's "hard to say" if opting out hurts students academically, said Michael Radday, superintendent of the Westhampton Beach school district. Only a single student there sat out tests in each of the past two years.

While he and others, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, think the Education Department botched the rollout of the Common Core -- adopted by 44 other states and the District of Columbia -- Radday believes students should persevere.

"The motivation behind the opt-out movement is well-intentioned," he said. "I believe the message it delivers to students is not one that will serve them well in the long run."


Exam critics

Lorna Lewis, superintendent of the Plainview-Old Bethpage district, is critical of the exams, but said they have served a useful purpose: Test performance can be a factor when considering students for inclusion in remedial or gifted programs.

Local report cards, teacher and parent observations and prior performance on state assessments also are taken into consideration for such placements, said Lewis, who co-chairs the curriculum committee for the state Council of School Superintendents.

"I think the movement will flatten as we respectfully address each concern," Lewis said, adding that superintendents are pushing for improvements. "I want to believe that at some point SED [New York State Education Department] has to get the message on this."

Districts and schools can face consequences if enough children opt out.

The state, adhering to federal standards, requires that 95 percent of all students -- divided into subgroups -- take the exams. Those subgroups are race and ethnicity, underprivileged children, English Language Learners and those in special education.

If a school fails to meet those standards for three years for the same group of students, the school is required to develop a plan for improvement.

Campuses already identified as needing help could find it hard to shake off a substandard status; those that do not meet the participation rate cannot come off "Priority" and "Focus" lists. Priority schools are among the lowest-performing in the state during a three-year period, while Focus schools have more specific problems, such as low graduation rates.

Also, some schools that qualify for federal Title I funding -- getting money based on economic need -- may lose out on grant money if they dip below the participation rate, state officials said. A school in good standing that fails to meet the 95 percent threshold cannot be designated a "Reward" school, singled out for academic success. Nor could it try for grants that require such a designation.

In the small Island Park district, Bovino said that with just 75 students in each grade, if four in a grade level refuse the test, the district could fall short of the 95 percent requirement, risking Title I monies.

So far, four families have refused to have their children tested, Bovino said. No one refused last year. The district, which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade, has advised opt-outs to stay home during test times.

In Locust Valley, eight children will not take ELA and math exams in April and May. Last year, five refused the English test and 12 sat out the math exam.

"If I had a magic wand, we wouldn't begin testing the children until they were older," Superintendent Anna Hunderfund said. "But the truth of the matter is, that is not what the state has decided to do."


Absences have ripple effect

It's hard for administrators to downplay the exams -- no matter how fraught they might be -- when student absences can cause a ripple effect throughout the district, she said.

For example, if a teacher's best students sit out the tests, his or her performance evaluation could drop because ratings are based in part on student performance.

"The fact is, you can't lower the pressure until significant changes take place with regard to all of these other entanglements," Hunderfund said.

Since last spring, the opt-out movement has gained momentum in social media. A Long Island-focused Facebook group recently grew to 15,000 members.

Jeanette Deutermann, the Bellmore parent who has become a leading activist, has been speaking out about the issue at forums across Nassau and Suffolk. She said refusals are growing as parents learn their rights.

Deutermann said the exams force schools to focus on test prep starting in January of each year, at the sacrifice of more engaging instruction.

"This is not the way you use testing," she said.

The controversy about how refusal requests are handled extends into the classroom -- and on test days in some districts.

Weiss said Long Beach students have been required to verbally declare that they are declining to take the test, even after their parents have provided a letter to the school. Critics said this is an undue burden for young children who might be embarrassed to stand out among peers.

But Weiss said state guidelines mandate that "exams need to be put in front of every student." He said he has asked for clarification.

"This is an area the state needs to be much more explicit about," he said.

Weiss said he considers the state tests to be useful, and the district uses results to evaluate their programs as well as students.

A handful of pupils have refused tests in each of the last two years.

"When students don't take the test, we don't know whether they achieve," he said.

Students in grades 3-8

Districts report students who do not take state standardized tests to the state Department of Education as "not tested."

A student's refusal to take state tests does not count against his or her grade in that subject or affect promotion to the next grade.

Performance on state tests is a factor considered by some districts for a student's inclusion in remedial or gifted programs.

Some educators say students who do not take these exams are at a disadvantage later on -- for example, in taking Regents tests required for graduation and the SAT and ACT college admissions exams.

Teachers and principals

Evaluations of teachers and principals now are based in part on students' performance on state tests. Student refusals to take tests could affect teacher job ratings. For example, if a teacher's top students opt out of exams, it could lower test results for the class.


The state Department of Education, in line with protocols under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, requires that 95 percent of students, measured by specified subgroups, sit for the exams as a factor in measuring districts' and schools' Adequate Yearly Performance (AYP). Subgroups include race/ethnicity, underprivileged children, English Language Learners and those in special education.

A school that fails to meet AYP standards for three years for the same subgroup of students is required to develop a plan for improvement.

A school in good standing that fails to meet the 95 percent threshold cannot be designated a "Reward" school, singled out for academic success, or try for grants that require such a designation.

Schools already identified as needing help that do not meet the participation rate cannot come off the state department's "Priority" and "Focus" lists. Priority schools are among the lowest-performing in the state during a three-year period. Focus schools have more specific problems, such as low graduation rates.

Some schools that qualify for federal Title I funding, and get money based on economic need, may lose out on the grant money if they fall below the participation rate, state officials said.

Sources: Long Island superintendents, New York State Department of Education

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